PUBLISHED:April 10, 2008

Deans' Dialogue: What would Dean Levi do with $100 million?

April 10, 2008 -- Asked what he would do with $100 million, Dean David Levi promptly reformulated the question: “What would cause someone to give $100 million to Duke Law School? What would excite someone about the prospect of so many young lawyers coming out of Duke Law School devoted to the rule of law at home and abroad?” The prospect of educating students to become committed civic educators and ambassadors for the rule of law just might, he said.

Duke Chapel Dean Samuel Wells put the “$100 million question” to Levi during a lunchtime “Dean’s Dialogue” held at Duke Law School on April 9. Duke Chapel sponsors the occasional dialogues “as an opportunity to talk about the larger questions of common interest to us all,” said Gaston Warner, director of University and Community Relations in his introduction. “We get to listen in on a conversation about how we can change the world with our resources — intellectual and financial.”

Levi premised his response on his belief that lawyers have used their training to lead since the beginning of the republic. Not only have “great lawyers,” such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, become great statesmen, but attorneys have served as the “social glue” in their communities, mediating between different communities and social classes. “When you study the history of the bar, you’re struck by all these instances of individual lawyers stepping forward at some point in their careers to do something really quite marvelous, quite heroic in retrospect, quite unselfish and altruistic,” said Levi.

Devotion to the rule of law, premised on respect for the individual, is the unifying value among Americans, he said. “It would be nice if we could all love each other, but that’s too much to expect. But it’s not too much to expect that we can all adhere to the rule of law. You don’t have to admire me, you don’t have to love me, you don’t have to bring me into your family. But you do have to respect the fact that I am entitled to practice my religion, to be safe in the workplace without fear of discrimination. In this country, we use the law to unify ourselves. [It is] the one ‘spiritual connection’ that holds the country together.”

The assurance that every person before the court has certain procedural rights, will be heard, and is given the respect that any human being should be entitled to is “an extremely powerful egalitarian force,” he added.

Responding to Wells’ suggestion that his is “a Utopian version of America,” Levi acknowledged its “aspirational” element, repositioning that as a problem that $100 million could help resolve.

“To run a democracy, you have to have citizens with a certain level of knowledge of how the country works, what its laws are, what its structures are, why we have a court system, why it’s important to have independent judges and civilian control over the military,” he said. “Yet the state of civic education in this country is woeful. I would use those resources to put our graduates in the position where they would have the time, the interest, and the ability to go into classrooms and community groups and be the kind of civic educators I think we need. They should have the time to do that.” Heavy debt burden makes it hard for many graduates to find the time, he added. “To have that kind of support for scholarships would be wonderful.

“For any law school or for any lawyer who takes an oath to protect the Constitution, what better way to protect and defend [it] than to explain our system to the next generation of voters?” he added.

Levi’s vision includes spreading the benefits of the rule of law to emerging societies. “To decide what direction they wish to take, what the substance of their communal endeavors will be, and what the substance of their laws will be, they need the rule of law. They need a level of peace and some kind of judicial system they have confidence in,” he said.

“I think our students could have a role in creating that sort of international rule of law … in places where there is not this developed legal profession. This is a very worthwhile endeavor for our graduates. Creating a legal profession and modernizing legal systems throughout the world is something that I think all lawyers think could make a tremendous addition to the sum of human happiness. It’s easily worth $100 million.”